East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)


Avoid stepping on Bela Lugosi
‘Cos he’s liable to turn and bite,
But stand close by Bette Davis
Because hers was such a lonely life.

banner-bette-blogathonIt’s the Bette Davis Blogathon!
Hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood to celebrate the career of one of the most versatile, intelligent and iconic stars of classic cinema.
Please direct your browser to the Good Old Days blog for a full list of the participants and a great selection of posts on famous and not-so-famous movies.

Now, Karavansara covers history, fantasy, adventure and exoticism – so what better choice than the classic Michael Curtiz film, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex?
After all, my fascination with the Elizabethan era is well documented, and this movie has it all.
And Erroll Flynn!

So, let us ask ourselves

What made good queen Bess
Such a great success?

And mind you, the quote from George Gershwin is not gratuitous, as we will see.

But for starters: Elizabeth the Queen, a play by Maxwell Anderson had been a reasonable success – totalling 147 performances on Brodway in 1930 – for Hollywood to want and do a movie.
It took them nine years to get the machine going.
Jack Warner footed the bill, got costume-epic specialist Michael Curtiz on board and put together an impressive cast.
Bette Davis is Queen Elizabeth – a bold casting choice considering that 31-years-old Davis is playing a woman of sixty and, what’s more, the one that has a rivel in a much younger and prettier woman. Davis had to partially shave her head and to completely remove her eyebrows for this part, and had to wear some extremely unwieldy costumes (about which, more later).  It takes a strong woman to face the challenge of such a character, and back in the old days this must have been an unprecedented casting decision.


Davis, who had been very supportive of the project, originally wanted Lawrence Olivier for the part of Robert Deveraux, 2nd Earl of Essex – but Warner, who knew the tastes of the viewers, imposed Erroll Flynn, the epitome of the dashing man of action, and simply perfect in the role of a cheeky adventurer that in the end (historically speaking) got beheaded for his cheekiness.
Davis was not pleased at first – as she apparently considered Flynn more ham than thespian. But apparently she had to change her view – at least partially.
As the third party in the love triangle, Olivia De Haviland (often partnered with Flynn on-screen) was cast as Lady Grey.

So, what about the story?
The set-up is pretty straightforward, but gets complicated fast: The Earl of Essex is the champion of Queen Elizabeth. Having given the Spaniards their just deserts in Cadiz, his popularity grows enough to worry both his lover Elizabeth and his adversaries and competitors at court –  Sir Robert Cecil (Henry Daniell), Lord Burghley (Henry Stephenson), and Sir Walter Raleigh (Vincent Price).


Intrigue is rife.
When Essex is sent to Ireland to repress the revolt of the Earl of Tyrone (Alan Hale, another regular Flynn co-star), things get complicated.
the-private-lives-of-elizabeth-and-essex-errol-flynn-as-the-earl-of-essex-1939The letters Essex sends to Elizabeth requiring support, and that the Queen sends to Ireland asking for news, are intercepted by Lady Grey, who is secretly in love with Essex. As a result, Essex does not get his suplies, and Elizabeth feels scorned by her lover.

Yes, now wait a minute.
I think we all agree that love is blind, and that Lady Grey is mindboggingly stupid.
What does she think she’s doing?
Look at the letter-pilfering ploy from any angle, and it’s just a weird way to get Essex killed.
Killed by Tyrone’s better equipped, larger forces – as he’s not getting reinforcements.
Or killed by an enraged Queen Elizabeth, who was, let’s not forget, the daughter of Henry the Eight – a guy that was quick with the chop.

Anyway – Tyrone negotiates a truce with Essex and sends him back to England.
Communication problems continuing, Essex marches on London with his army, is arrested and – despite a final offer of grace – executed.

And while it is easy to be flippant about this Hollywood adaptation of a rather more complicated but also much less silly bit of Elizabethan history, the movie remains a great example of cinema.


The look of the movie is simply gorgeous – costumes having been copied form historical sources and produced with loving care.
Again, one has to think about the plight of Bette Davis, working under the arc lights in a gown that weighed 60 pounds. Some sources claim the actress lost 2 or 3 pounds per day for the sheer fatigue.

Then there is the cast – despite Davis early misgivings, Flynn is just right in the role of Essex.
It’s funny now – but probably it was not funny at all back then – to think that the title of the movie was changed because Flynn wanted his character to be mentioned. And if really Bette Davis revised her opinion of Flynn’s contribution to the film, it also seems certain the two stars cordially hated each other for the duration. And in that slap scene you saw in the trailer, apparently during rehearsals Bette Davies really slapped Flynn. Hard.

Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) 2

And then there is Bette Davis, that through a tour-de-force performance manages to be exactly what the audience would expect of good old Queen Bess.
And she indeed plays the part favoring the romantic view of Elizabeth as a good, down-to-earth grumpy old lady, whose bitterness is matched by both pride and humor.
Davis’ Elizabeth is a popular fiction version of the Virgin Queen, and as such part of the Olde Englande folklore to which the Gershwin song quoted above made reference.  And herein we find Davis’ great achievement – to interprete such a folk character while still being able to portray the full impact of the tragedy of a woman torn between passion and duty, strong and fragile at the same time, required skill and sensibility that few other actresses would have.
In the end, Elizabeth choses England over Errol Flynn, and her lover approves of her choice and goes to the executioner with his dignity intact.

Errol Flynn and Bette Davis never again starred together in a movie.
That slap did hurt a lot, evidently.

The Eric Wolfgang Korngold soundtrack is considered a classic in its own right, and as a bonus, here’s a complete suite execution.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

10 thoughts on “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

  1. Pingback: THE BETTE DAVIS BLOGATHON HAS NOW ARRIVED – In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

  2. This is a gorgeous looking film, with fab performances. Olivier would have been terrific in the role, but I’m glad Warner Bros insisted on Errol Flynn. As you mentioned, Flynn had the right quote of cheekiness for the role.

    As for Bette Davis, her wardrobe looks SO HEAVY! I can believe she lost quite a bit of weight, trudging around in that get-up. That alone proves she was a force to be reckoned with.

    Thanks for the insightful review! Methinks it’s time to see this one again. 🙂


  3. Bette Davis is very good in this role – and it’s great that she faced all her visual challenges for this iconic portrait. Flynn was a good choice, and added a flamboyant tocuh to his character. I wish we could have had more of Olivia on screen, though!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂


    • Yes, this is clearly not De Havilland’s movie – and probably fleshing out her part a bit would have made the role more believable.
      But we’ll always have Captain Blood to get our fix of Olivia 😉

      And great post about Three on a Match (great pre-Code movie)


  4. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon with a great entry as always. I’ve had the DVD of this movie for a long time, but I haven’t watched it as yet. I need to do so soon though.

    I would also like to let you know that I’ve been asked to co-host a blogathon dedicated to Olivia in celebration of her centenary in July, and I would love to invite you to participate. The link is below with more details.


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Davide. Just messaging to let you know that I’ve just announced my Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. And would love to invite you to join in. The link is below with more details.



  6. Pingback: The Virgin Queen (1955) | Karavansara

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.